96th Infantry Division Deadeyes Asssociation

My Chat with a Japanese Soldier

    I did not see many live Japanese soldiers on Leyte or Okinawa, where we were usually advancing in the open and they were hidden in defensive positions. We might first know of their presence when they opened fire.

     It was even rarer to see Japanese POWs. My first was when I was discharged from a hospital on Saipan, where I recovered from a wound on Okinawa. An Army 6X6 truck drew up to the hospital that morning, and about a half dozen discharged patients were told to get in the back to go to a Navy base, where we would wait for a ship. I got a brief look at the driver - a Japanese POW - and then we were off over mountain roads. I couldn't help worrying that the driver might want to go to his version of heaven by turning the wheel the wrong way on a curve. When we got to the Navy base, I heard that there were several Japanese soldiers who lived in caves overlooking the base, but they never bothered anyone other than coming down at night to steal food. The movies we saw each night were on a screen that could be seen from those caves; it may have been deliberately placed that way.

     I got back to Okinawa as the battle was nearing its end. What remained of Co. C was involved in mopping up operations, and we held a part of a loose perimeter. There were large gaps between our position and the units to our left and right. At night, Japanese soldiers would sneak through the gaps to steal food from units in the rear, who weren't as careful about stray enemy soldiers as we were. On some nights, the returning Japanese soldiers stumbled onto our positions, or we heard the sound of canned goods in their backpacks, and some shooting would break out.

     One day, a Japanese POW was brought up to our position by some MPs. He was a Royal Marine, who had surrendered. He stood over six feet tall, in a colorful dress uniform. He had agreed to return to a cave that was visible from our position, where there were other holdouts, and try to convince them to surrender. He returned to our position alone.

     A day or two later, a Japanese soldier surrendered to our company. I stayed with him as we waited for an MP to take him to the rear. He spoke English fairly well, and I sat with him on the edge of a foxhole and asked a few questions. The newly-announced point system to choose who would go home first was much on our minds then, though we did expect to take part in an invasion of Japan first. I asked him how long he had been in the Japanese Army. He told me, and I quickly did the arithmetic and told him how many points he had. He cocked his head and gave me a look somewhere between concern and confusion about what I was getting at, but he answered again when I asked how long he had been away from Japan; I told him his revised point total. At that point, the escort showed up, ending our conversation.

     That is one of the small events of my Army service that I have never forgotten. It is my only happy memory of Okinawa, other than the day when we found canned mandarin oranges. Every so often, I wonder about what that Japanese soldier made of my questions. And I,ve always marveled at the unreality of the lighthearted chat between enemies, still on the battlefield. At least, it was lighthearted on my side. He may not have felt the same, in the circumstances.